Last week, about 50 Latin American asylum seekers were flown from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard on two flights organized by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. A number of people on the planes had told reporters that a woman who identified herself as “Perla” approached them at a shelter outside San Antonio and promised that after they were airlifted in Boston, they would receive job opportunities and housing assistance. It was, by all accounts, a ruthless political stunt, but a similar practice took place throughout the summer, with thousands of people bussed from Texas and Arizona to Washington, D.C. and New York. New York Mayor Eric Adams has threatened legal action against Texas, as have a group of Massachusetts lawyers. Gavin Newsom, the governor of California, has asked the Department of Justice to consider kidnapping charges in the case of those sent to Martha’s Vineyard. President Joe Biden has accused Republican governors of “playing politics with human beings, using them as props.” Speaking at a gala for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, he said, “What they’re doing is just plain wrong.”
In the refugee experience, however, being put on a bus or a plane and finding yourself thousands of miles away from where you might have wanted to go, or thought you were going, is ordinary. When people fleeing violence and disaster seek protection from national governments and international organizations, they learn that beggars at the citizenship table cannot choose. A national government may decide to house them, for an indefinite period, in a hotel, dormitory or detention centre; they may have limited or no freedom of movement; they may not be allowed to seek work to support themselves and their families. An international organization such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees can recognize as a refugee a person who has had to flee his country and place his file in a giant pool of applications from which another country, a few years later, will be able to choose the no one to reinstall. UNHCR currently considers twenty-seven million people in different parts of the world to be refugees; twice as many, by the agency’s own estimate, have been displaced but have not had their need for international protection formally recognized. Each year, less than one percent of refugees are permanently resettled in a country willing to offer them the prospect of eventual citizenship.
Hannah Arendt – who fled Nazi Germany in 1933, lived in France as a displaced person, and arrived in the United States in 1941 – observed that a refugee, a stateless person, who exists outside of the law national, is by definition stripped of all rights. While we may claim and believe that people have rights by virtue of their human condition – that these rights are inalienable – in reality, to exercise rights a person must be a member of a political community. Arendt called stateless people “rightless”. Their calamity, she writes, “is not that they be deprived of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or equality before the law and freedom of opinion – formulas devised to solve problems. in given communities, but that they no longer belong to any community. Their lot is not that they are not equal before the law, but that no law exists for them; not that they are oppressed, but that nobody even wants to oppress them.
None of this means that asylum seekers should be put on buses or planes and sent to places they never wanted to go – only that the preconditions for such treatment have existed for decades. The relative novelty is the militarization of asylum seekers. “We take what’s happening on the southern border very seriously, unlike some, unlike the President of the United States, who has refused to lift a finger to secure that border,” DeSantis said, after attributing credit for chartering the planes for Martha’s Vineyard. “We are not a sanctuary state. It’s better to be able to go to a sanctuary jurisdiction. In other words, if Democrats love asylum seekers so much, they should take responsibility for housing them. Texas Governor Greg Abbott was more direct. After buses dropped off dozens of asylum seekers outside the home of Vice President Kamala Harris, Abbott told a Texas radio station, “She’s the Border Czar, and we thought if she didn’t come down to see the border, if President Biden doesn’t come to see the border, we’ll make sure they see it first hand. . . . And listen, there’s more where that came from.
Abbott and DeSantis didn’t invent the tactic. In 2021, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenka brought thousands of people from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and other countries in need of international protection to Minsk, D ‘where they were escorted to the borders with European Union member Lithuania. , Latvia and Poland. Years earlier, Vladimir Putin’s Russia appeared to facilitate the passage of people fleeing Syria – where Russian troops were waging war alongside Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship – to Finland and Norway, apparently as part of a broader plan to destabilize European democracies.
The strategies of Republican governors, like those of Eastern European dictators, are based on the cynical assumption that no one really wants to offer refuge to people fleeing adversity. From Putin’s or Lukashenka’s point of view, the gamble paid off. The influx of refugees from Syria has fueled the rise of far-right parties even in countries as traditionally welcoming as Sweden. Poland has created an open-air prison on its border that locals call the “death zone”, where refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere continue to face inhumane conditions, even as the country has voluntarily taken in millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war with Russia. Six months later, however, Europeans are also beginning to lack compassion for white Christian refugees.
What Putin and Lukashenka likely believe they have proven – and what Republican governors assume they will prove – is that any talk of welcoming people in need of protection is just that: sentiment will crumble in the face of genuine asylum seekers. The Trump administration, in both its rhetoric and policy, has shattered the historical myth that the United States is a nation of immigrants. The Biden administration has done little to reverse the effects of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, including the Muslim ban, the first iteration of which – in January 2017 – sparked mass protests. The administration seems to assume that assurances that the border is secure will always be more popular with the public than policies that can be interpreted as encouraging immigration.
Abbott, DeSantis and their supporters are indeed calling the Democrats’ bluff. They may well succeed in fomenting tension and resentment, much like what Putin and Lukashenka did in Europe. It’s not so much that people in Massachusetts, New York and Washington, DC will quickly tire of people seeking protection; it is that the fundamental inhumanity of existing refugee and asylum policies suggests that they – that we – are indeed hypocritical to the core. ♦